The Canadian National Sheep Dog Trials beckoned this weekend, on a beautiful cool sunny day. The course (the traditional Kingston Sheep Dog Trials course, now in its 17th year) is a long field with gentle small hills just high enough to hide sheep who want to stray. Beyond the field, a Move along, sheep ... bay leading to the St. Lawrence was full of sailboats. Our spectators lined the wire fence, on bleachers with many in their own folding camp chairs. Many were waiting their turn, their collie at their side, and all were interested and as quiet as spectators at a golf tournament, taking care not to disturb the handler or the working dog.
The trial goes as follows: the handler, with his shepherd's crook, stands by a pole at the judges' end of the field. With a hand signal he sets his dog to run, and the small, sturdy, black and white collie hurtles down the field, ears flapping, feet barely touching the grass. At the far end he meets his group of four or five sheep who have never been herded by a dog before. After a short pause, the sheep begin to trot up the field away from the dog and towards the shepherd and pen. The dog, following far behind the sheep, drives them in a straight line up the middle of the field, through a gate, past his master, around the pole, back through another gate, across the field through a third gate, and then up to a sheep pen, where the handler has opened the gate. As soon as they are in the pen, the shepherd opens the gate and they burst out. The final job Now go through the gate ... for the dog is to separate one sheep from the bunch and turn it to face the judge. A perfect score is 100, and the judges take notes. Nipping at the sheep is cause for disqualification, but we didn't see any of that.
Although most sheep trial courses are similar in layout, each one has its own geography, and the dog must get his directions from whistles or shows from his master. Almost every dog we saw managed to get the sheep a good way through the exercise, but almost none of them could accomplish all of the tasks. It's not that the dog didn't understand -- but the sheep frequently wouldn't cooperate. Three of them would trot obediently through the gate and the fourth would simply go around. Or one sheep would decide to stop and eat some grass. Or all of the sheep would suddenly veer off in an oblique direction. One poor dog got his sheep all the way up the field to the pole and then the sheep simply kept going, past the judges' tent and down toward the river. We couldn't see what was happening at that point, but after several minutes had passed, the handler left her place at the pole and walked after her dog, and the announcer called the next entrant. ... and into that pen!
This particular handler had come from British Columbia to the trials (stopping at other contests on the circuit along the way). Others came from across Canada and many from the northeastern United States, with one as far away as Georgia, but none West of the Mississippi.
The dogs work so hard that by the end of the exercise they are exhausted. Each dog and master stays back while the next trial is run, ready to help out if the dog loses control of the sheep or is simply too tired to finish -- it didn't happen while we were there. In fact, one very successful dog was so excited by it all that at the end of his task he turned and ran a short circle around the field -- a miniature canine Victory Lap!